New research from the fourth century suggests Jesus was married. IB Times

A historian at Harvard University has identified a fourth century fragment of papyrus which contains texts in which Jesus apparently refers to being married.

Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the 4x 8-cm papyrus fragment read "Jesus said to them, my wife".

It has eight lines of writing on one side and the other side is damaged, with three words and a few words visible with the help of computer enlargement.

The second of the eight lines written in black ink read "she will be able to be my disciple".

The finding, presented at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, is expected to revive the centuries old debate over the marital status of Jesus.

Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, told Bloomberg that the papyrus fragment was likely to be authentic, looking at the handwriting and the papyrus.

"One of the things we do know is that very rarely in ancient literature was the marital status of men discussed," she said in a conference call with reporters.

"Silence in marital status is normal".

Women were referred to as someone's sister, mother or wife, and the marital status of men was not referred to.

However, King said she did not believe the fragment was proof that Jesus was actually married.

"I do not think Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, whether or not he was married, I don't know".

King did not reveal the name the owner of the papyrus fragment and said she was first contacted by its owner through e-mail, before it was hand-delivered to her in December 2011.

Anne Marie Luiendijk of Princeton University in New Jersey, another professor of religion who has seen the papyrus, told Bloomberg that the fragment's poor condition suggested it had been found in a garbage heap.

Such fragments were often found in burial sites, she added.

Notwithstanding the factual position about Jesus' marriage, the discovery has reignited an age old topic - the marital status of Jesus - and therefore, the path his followers can choose.

"This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married," King told The New York Times.

"There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex."